NAB agrees to 2009 DTV deadline

A show of bipartisan support for a Jan. 1, 2009 analog shutoff date is sure to be ratified in Congress

Though the political jockeying may never end, the DTV transition appears to be coming to a conclusion. Last week’s show of bipartisan support — including that of the NAB —for a Jan. 1, 2009 analog shutoff date is about as certain as things get in Washington, D.C.

All that is left to learn is whether the digital transmission technology (namely, the 8-VSB modulation scheme) actually works for mass audiences in real world conditions and whether the business of digital terrestrial broadcasting has a future in a multichannel era. It may be a years before those questions are answered.

The end of analog broadcasting paves the way for new DTV legislation in this Congress to close a loophole built into the 1996 Telecom Act.

Under that law, currently in effect, broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government by Dec. 31, 2006. But the loophole specified that the spectrum return is mandated only in markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals. With the 85 percent rule in effect, it could take decades to end the transition.

The biggest remaining issue is over whether the government should subsidize the purchase of converter boxes for the estimated 15 percent of households that get their TV signals via antennas. The boxes, projected to eventually cost between $50 and $100 each, would convert digital signals to analog.

Consumers Union director Gene Kimmelman, testifying at a hearing on the issue last week, said all consumers, even the affluent, should be eligible for a government subsidy for a converter.

Others think a subsidy should be limited to the poor. Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-AK), who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also suggested that Congress should set another hard date after which it would be illegal to sell analog TV sets in the United States.

Broadcasters have urged Congress to give consumers the choice of receiving the new signals as-is or converting them to analog so they would work on older television sets — and to require cable companies to carry extra digital channels offered by terrestrial stations.